Saturday, April 11, 2009

Justine

Lawrence Durrell's Justine is the first part of what is known as the Alexandria Quartet. The novel, along with the other three parts, were conceived as one novel, but due to financial reasons was published in four separate volumes. It's my understanding that all the books essentially tell the same story from different perspectives.

Justine took me a lot longer to read than it should have...it's only 250 pages but I took four months to read it. Real life sometimes interrupts reading life like that. I not only wish it wouldn't have taken me so long because it shouldn't have, it also diminished the emotional impact that it had going in the beginning. Once I lost my steam in reading it, I couldn't find the punch again.

What it didn't lose, however, was the beauty of language. Now, the style of Durrell's writing could have gone either way: it could come across as brilliant, or it could come across as cheesy. Durrell somehow pulls it off. Throughout, I kept thinking, this is clearly what Francoise Sagan was trying to do in Bonjour Tristesse. This is the voice she wanted, but IMO, simply couldn't achieve. It's the complete opposite of Chandler's voice in The Big Sleep...it's elegant. Some of the phrases I underlined:

  • A sky of hot nude pearl until midday
  • I return link by link along the iron chains of memory
  • The city which used as as its flora
  • dust-tormented streets
  • Dauntlessley candid eyes
  • a sort of protozoic profile in fog and rain
  • listening to the heavy tone of her scent
  • After all what is the good of a fine metaphor for Melissa when she lies buried deep as any mummy in the shallow tepid sand of the black estuary?

Justine...it's hard to tell the plot, because there really isn't any. It's more of series of impressions. The narrator (unnamed) is dating Melissa, but sleeping with Justine, who is married to Nessim. Somewhere in there, Clea is involved as well, as are a host of others. I expect all the relationship among the characters to be explained further, and more clearly, in the subsequent books. That might be my one "complaint" about the novel...I say complaint in quotations because the problem was clearly exaccerbated by my faliure to read the book in a timely manner. Picking it up, reading 10 pages and then putting it down for 3 weeks is not recommended for this novel. Anyway, my "complaint" is that these characters just appear...suddenly they're there, or their mentioned offhandedly, and you're not sure if they're significant...you don't know what role they play. By the middle of the book, I started to keep a list of the characters, their descriptions and how they interact with everyone else, but it really wasn't much help. What is going on seems to be only seen through a fog that was difficult to penetrate. Hopefully the fog will be lifted as I move through the rest of the tetralogy.

Film Snob Episode #1

The Big Sleep

Oh, how I love hardboiled novels. It started when I was maybe 13 or 14, when I saw Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. I was instantly in love...both with noir style films (and soon their literary counterpart) as well as Humphrey Bogart.

I'm not going to go into plot details. There's a private detective, and someone hires him, but the job isn't exactly what is initially presented, and then there are some dangerous dames, and some thugs, and people get shot, and somehow all the complexities of the crimes are put together in the end. Of course the intricacies are so, well, intricate, that though I finished this book only 12 hours ago, I really don't remember who killed who and for what reason anymore.

It's been a while since I read a novel in this style, and I was was struck by a the detail Chandler gives of each scene. Every room he walks into is described in depth. The rain isn't just rain, it was a "hard, wet rain." (As my grandfather used to say, it's those wet rains that I hate...the dry ones aren't so bad.) The carpet was as white as the "fresh fall snow." The scene is set up so clearly, that out of the hundres or thousands of rooms that you might imagine Philip Marlowe walking into, Chandler only allows you one. You know the color not just of the carpet, but the style and condition of the furniture, the window treatments, the height of the ceiling, the placement of everything. And it's been so long since I read Hammett and Cain that I don't recall if they're all like this, or just Chandler.

But what I really love about this style of novel is the one liners. They're fabulous. "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts." "Not being bullet proof was an idea I had to get used to." "Get up, angel. You look like a Pekinese." "You're no English mufflin yourself." And my favorite, that I intend to use someday: I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling.

In addition to his work as an author, Chandler wrote or co-wrote screenplays to some of the best noir films of the time: Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train, and a personal favorite of mine (with one of my favorite lines: Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser) which has aggregiously NOT been released on DVD in the US, the Blue Dahlia (not to be confused with the Black Dahlia). I wanted you to know that, just so that I could complain that the movie hasn't been released on DVD. Somebody needs to correct this oversight.

The Big Sleep was a nice break from my heavier reading. Ok, that was a lie. I put my heavier reading aside for The Big Sleep. I guess now I have to crawl back into my Henry James hole. :-(